The crimes are minor but it’s the misdemeanors that do the most harm in Graduation, an excellent Romanian drama that begins as a father’s hope for his talented teen daughter and morphs into a claustrophobic moral crisis ensnaring several individuals. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) lays out his story with nearly surgical precision, adopting a chilly tone for a movie about the tiny, day-to-day infractions that conspire to corrode society’s foundation. Rarely has cheating on a test been fraught with such significance.
Graduation begins with a jolt: A rock smashes through the window of a house. The home belongs to Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a respected doctor in a rundown Transylvania community where crime is rampant. The vandalism only strengthens Romeo’s belief that his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) needs to go to university in the U.K., which will put her on the path to a better life. Eliza has the grades to qualify for a scholarship, but there’s one final step she needs to complete: getting high marks on her finals.
Problems quickly arise. On the eve of the exam, Romeo drops her off about a block from school, needing to dash to a meeting. But his appointment is actually with Sandra (Malina Manovici), one of Eliza’s teachers, with whom he’s having an affair. While he’s preparing to screw his mistress, he gets a call that Eliza was assaulted on her way to school, barely escaping before being raped. His anguish over his daughter’s attack is accentuated by his guilt that if he hadn’t been rushing to see his lover, none of this would have happened.
That’s more than enough setup for a drama, but for Mungiu this is merely the starting point for a tale that twists and curves down unexpected paths. Because Eliza is shaken up by her attack, her father tries to get the school to postpone the exam, a request that’s refused. So when Eliza fares poorly on the first day of the three-day test, Romeo fears the scholarship and Eliza’s new life could be jeopardized.
And so he decides to take matters into his own hands. Working some under-the-table deals that involve (among others) a cop buddy (Vlad Ivanov) and a man who needs a liver transplant, Romeo trades favors for favors so that Eliza is assured to get the high grade necessary on the exam. But for his plan to work, he needs to tell his daughter to make a special mark on her paper, which means implicating her in his scheme. All of this runs counter to the high ideals he’s tried to instill in her. But Romeo can easily justify the mendacity to himself: Maybe cheating isn’t right, but was it right for Eliza to be assaulted? Or for vandals to keep smashing his windows?
Unsurprisingly, Romeo’s plan doesn’t run smoothly, but Graduation’s beauty is not so much in exactly how the plan falls apart—although there’s sufficient pleasure to be had—but in charting how it chips away at the sterling image Romeo has about himself. The 52-year-old Titieni has appeared in other Romanian gems such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Child’s Pose, but he’s been given his finest platform in Graduation, and he uses it to essay a man whose pride in his fine upstanding moral character is little more than a defense mechanism to shield himself from his regrets. As we’ll learn, Romeo and his wife Magda (a superbly frosty Lia Bugnar) moved to the town years ago in the hopes of turning the flailing community around. Now years later, their marriage has collapsed and the town remains in ruins, the middle-aged man living vicariously through his daughter’s presumed success as a way to forget his own disappointments.
That fear of Eliza’s failure powers everything Romeo will do during Graduation, which explains why we always sense the personal reasons behind the ethically questionable chain of events that starts to get away from him. Mungiu loves adding little surprises that further complicate Romeo’s dilemma—chief among them is that Eliza isn’t sure she really wants to go to the U.K., flirting with the idea of staying closer to home so that she can do some good in her community, a noble notion that her father rejects as being foolish. No murders or high-stakes heists occur in Graduation, but that’s appropriate to Mungiu’s small-scale approach, which emphasizes the smooth progression from one action to the next, each informing and influencing the next. As a result, each scene has its own small impact, whether it be a sequence at the police station where Eliza tries to identify her assailant or a moment between Romeo and Sandra where she tries to introduce him to her young son.
This is the fourth feature from Mungiu, who has proved to be a master of the minor. In his breakout second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the arduous process to secure an abortion was enough to sustain a taut, real-time thriller. In his 2012 follow-up Beyond the Hills, the tense relationship between two childhood friends became a springboard for a drama about religious faith and devotion. Now with Graduation, Mungiu again sees the drama in the everyday, arguing that it’s not the major injustices that are the most nefarious—it’s the small ways we screw over the other guy on a regular basis that keep us so paranoid and distrustful of one another. Romeo spends the course of the movie cheating, lying and rationalizing, perceiving everything from his affair to his daughter’s doctored test results as permissible because of the world he lives in. But we’ve all got to live in that world together. It’s poetic justice that it’s Eliza, whom he taught to be a good person, who gets the final word.
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Writer: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Adrian Titieni, Maria Dragus, Lia Bugnar, Malina Manovici, Vlad Ivanov
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.